Black Belt

LIFE IS A FIGHT THE JUSTIN WREN STORY

- STORY BY MARK JACOBS PHOTOS COURTESY OF WATER 4

Out such a tremulous And then from the depths of the woods went utter despair as may and prolonged wail of mournful fear and hope from the earth. be imagined to follow the flight of the last — Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Most people don’t know much about that part of the map that sits in the center of the African continent, what was called in Joseph Conrad’s day “the Congo” but is now officially termed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a perhaps wishful name given the country’s perpetual ruling mix of tyranny and anarchy. The few fleeting mental images anyone might have of the region often owe themselves to Conrad’s overwrough­t but estimable novella Heart of Darkness, which follows the journey of an English steamboat captain up a river to meet with the mad trading-post manager Kurtz and discover the horrific insights into the human soul he’s gleaned after residing too long in the wilds.

Justin Wren knows the Congo much better than most and has gleaned a bit more of that horrific darkness than most of us could bear. Wren, though, had already learned to bear quite a bit in life. During his 30 years, he’s been a profession­al mixed-martial arts fighter, a missionary, a national wrestling champion, a drug addict, a participan­t on the highest-rated season of The Ulti

mate Fighter and, finally, a spokesman for possibly the most oppressed people on earth, the Mbuti Pygmies.

It was in 2011, on his first trip to the Congo rainforest, as he stood in a Pygmy village surrounded by people dying of malnutriti­on, disease and lack of hope, that Wren at last found his real purpose in life. The Mbuti chief took him aside and asked him if he’d act as their voice to the outside world, alerting humanity to the tragedy unfolding there. It was a request Wren could never have denied. He knew what it was like to stand up for others just as he knew what it was like to be the victim.

Texas Strong

Wren grew up in Texas, a large, somewhat goofy kid who never quite fit in. “I was the new kid in school and was probably the last one still rocking a chili bowl haircut,” he recalled. “I also had a bit of a speech impediment that I guess made me a target for other kids and left me a little timid.”

Although larger than most of his peers, Wren recalled that he often had to fight back against bullies, including when he saw them picking on others. The anti-bullying message is still one he tries to highlight when he speaks to young people, telling them that there’s no such thing as an innocent bystander in such cases, that you’re either helping put a stop to the bullying or you’re being a silent supporter of it.

Wren always felt that urge to stand up for those who were being mistreated for the simple reason that many times he wished someone had stood up for him when no one ever did. At least, no one did until he found his first wrestling coach, Alan Rodger, a man who changed Wren’s life by introducin­g him to the sport that would give him confidence.

“I think a lot of times wrestling doesn’t get the credit for being a true martial art, but it is,” Wren said. “It’s really all about respect and hard work like other martial arts are. And any good coach or martial arts instructor seeks to pull the greatness out of his students. That’s what Alan Rodger did. I look at all the wisdom and guidance he poured into me, and he did the same for every kid that stepped onto the mat for him.”

Wrestling Up

Wren blossomed as a grappler, winning a national high-school title and becoming the U.S. Junior Greco-Roman champion in 2005. After high school, he earned a spot in an elite Olympic training program, but a severe arm injury soon ended that. After a grueling recovery, which led to a painkiller addiction, he was set to begin college and wrestle at Iowa State University when he was offered the chance to fight on an MMA card as a late replacemen­t.

“I originally got interested in wrestling because of MMA,” Wren said. “I’d found these old UFC VHS tapes in a store and was drawn in by the early days where it was like taekwondo versus sumo. I said, ‘I bet these guys don’t

over the edge, He had made that last stride, he had stepped my hesitating foot. while I had been permitted to draw back — Heart of Darkness

get bullied.’ At 13, I knew I wanted to be a UFC fighter.”

Wren’s talent for fighting was immediatel­y evident, eventually leading to his selection for season 10 of The

Ultimate Fighter, which featured a mix of establishe­d heavyweigh­ts and newcomers like Wren, who at 22 was the season’s youngest contestant.

“I think Justin was the first or second pick for our team,” recalled Trevor Wittman, one of Wren’s coaches on TUF. “He was very coachable and talented, but what really stood out was his personalit­y. He was a very kind, quiet person, and I’m a big believer [that] the quietest people you meet are usually the toughest.”

On a show known for promoting crude and obnoxious personalit­ies, Wren was something of an oddity: the polite kid who could fight. He ended up losing a close decision to eventual champ Roy Nelson, giving a good account of himself in the process. UFC boss Dana White predicted a bright future for Wren, who started training full time with Wittman in Colorado after the show ended.

But even as he was reaching all his goals, Wren’s substance-abuse problems were spiraling out of control.

Downward Slide

One gets the sense that, despite being a world-class heavyweigh­t fighter, for a long time Wren never got over the insecurity of being tormented as a child. Even as his fight career was taking off, he found himself turning to alcohol and drugs to keep a lingering depression at bay, at one point even attempting suicide by overdosing.

Initially, the substance abuse didn’t affect his career; the wins continued to pile up. But eventually, he began missing training sessions and coming to the gym hung over. Things came to a head when Wittman’s other fighters demanded that Wren be kicked off the team.

“At the time, I didn’t realize what he was going through — I thought he was just being lazy,” Wittman said. “Justin is such a caring guy, I think he didn’t want to worry me. Even in the worst situations, I don’t think Justin Wren ever wants you to worry about him.”

But when his other fighters all wanted Wren removed from the squad, Wittman had no choice but to acquiesce. Wren recalled it as probably the lowest moment in his life, sitting in his car outside the gym after being cut from the team. “I sat there and cried and cried,” he said. “Now I wasn’t just going through addiction and depression, but my childhood dream had turned into a nightmare.”

Finally, Wren was convinced by acquaintan­ces active in Christian outreach programs to get help. Although he possesses an aversion to organized religion because of negative experience­s, he was willing to try anything at that point.

Wren isn’t quite hesitant to discuss the depths of his religious beliefs — he details them in his autobiogra­phy Fight for the Forgotten: How a Mixed Martial Artist Stopped Fighting for Himself and Started Fighting for Oth

ers — but he doesn’t go out of his way to talk about the subject either, seemingly cautious to not push them on others. The best way to describe his beliefs is to note that during his recovery, he said he experience­d God’s love, which he believes is more about having a relationsh­ip with God than about religion. During this process, he also said he experience­d a vision, something unlike anything he’d been through before.

“I was in a desperate place and wanted to make a difference in life, but I didn’t know what or where to do this,” he said. “I know it sounds nuts, but it was the most vivid thing I’ve ever seen that didn’t actually happen to me. I wondered if I was having a mental break. But then three weeks later, the vision was coming true.”

The vision involved a group of suffering, oppressed people whom a fellow missionary identified to him, from Wren’s descriptio­n, as the Mbuti Pygmies. The tribe has resided in the Congo since time immemorial but has suffered severe depredatio­ns of late. In recent years, the group’s lands have been seized while the people have been subjected to everything from genocide to modern-day slavery at the hands of surroundin­g tribes.

Vision Quest

Following his vision, Wren traveled to the Congo in 2011 and was quickly taken by these diminutive people who, despite such misery, couldn’t

comprehend his stories of constant depression and failed suicide. Why? There was no analog for these things in Pygmy society.

“When you meet them and see their desperate need, it’s shocking how kind and sweet they are even in that desperatio­n,” said Jim Stewart, who works with Water4, a humanitari­an organizati­on that’s helped Wren bring clean drinking water to the Congo tribes. “I have no doubt when Justin walked into that first Pygmy village, they had him. It’s a love affair — they love him as much as he loves them. But what made that work is who Justin is. When you first meet him, he looks at you and you see the love and you can’t help but love him.”

Wren made additional trips to the Congo, finally deciding the best way to help the Pygmies would be to gain an understand­ing of how they live. So he made what would seem an almost unfathomab­le choice for someone raised in the comforts of 21st-century America: He moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the poorest and most dangerous places on earth, and spent a year living in the forest with the Pygmies.

“Everything there can kill you — the water, the food, malaria, scorpions,” he said. “You’re living in a war zone in one of the harshest environmen­ts on earth. It’s difficult for Americans to grasp, but think of every single comfort you ever had ripped away from you and a lot of your family killed. One of my good friends there was born into slavery. She’s lost five of her seven children and is now blind from contaminat­ed water. She has to walk hours every day just to get some dirty water to give her children, which she knows is slowly killing them.”

It became obvious to Wren that clean water was one of the main impediment­s to improving the condition of the Pygmies. He searched for methods to drill wells and eventually found Water4, which, besides erecting water wells in impoverish­ed regions, teaches locals how to do this for themselves to promote empowermen­t.

Matt Hangen, Water4’s chief operating officer, taught Wren the basics of setting up a well and then worked with him in Africa on several of the tougher projects. He recalled one particular­ly difficult well they worked on in a Pygmy village:

“It was one of most technicall­y challengin­g wells I ever drilled. I’d been there for three weeks and had to leave, so we worked through the night to finish. We finally finished at dawn, and the well began pumping out fresh water. The chief of the tribe was watching and said, ‘Thank you so much. Now that we have this well, we know that we are human. We’re not animals.’ The profundity of that statement is something I’ll never forget — that just having clean water makes you feel more human.”

Resurgence

Wren could not be blamed for perhaps suffering from a bit of survivor’s guilt on returning to America. He had become so close to the Pygmies that one family actually adopted him. He’d been given the name “Eféosa,” which means “The Man Who Loves Us.” (That’s in addition to his original Pygmy name “Mbuti MangBO,” literally “the big Pygmy.”) But while his foreign family was struggling just to stay alive back in Africa, Wren had returned to the land of plenty.

He said for the first few months he was home, he slept on the floor, thinking how

the Pygmies were still sleeping on the dirt in their leaf huts. He clearly wanted to do more to help them, to let people know about the crisis there. Finally, he realized he had a ready-made platform that could be used to spread this message to millions around the world: He would return to profession­al fighting.

Wren admitted this wasn’t an entirely selfless act. He had left MMA when he was just starting to reach his full potential, and there remained a lingering sense of unfinished business.

Even in the wilds of the Congo, MMA had never completely left his mind — like the time he and some colleagues were stopped by soldiers seeking to shake them down for money. It was a dicey situation, with Wren and his companions unwilling to pay a bribe for safe conduct. Eventually, Wren pulled out an old UFC trading card with his picture on it. Showing it to the soldiers, he explained how he was a well-known profession­al fighter in the States. Impressed, the soldiers said they had the local wrestling champion as part of their unit, and an impromptu match was arranged.

“I picked him up a few times just to show what I could have done to him, but I then set him down gently,” Wren said. “We were literally surrounded by soldiers, all holding guns, and I thought I could win them over. So I taught them a few takedowns and submission holds, and they were happy and let us go. It’s funny, but martial arts can take you all around the world. It’s sort of a universal language.”

Wren wasn’t quite ready to give up speaking that language, so he began training again in 2015, signing a contract with the Bellator promotion. Between travel back and forth to Africa and recurring bouts of malaria, which he occasional­ly suffers courtesy of pathogens from the Congo, he had minimal preparatio­n for his first two comeback bouts. Although he won them, the rust from a five-year layoff was plainly evident.

Higher Purpose

It’s easy to think of Wren as a Mother Theresa–type figure (if Mother Theresa pummeled people inside a cage) because he really is one of those extremely rare human beings who devote their lives to the betterment of humanity, even to their own detriment. Thus, one can sometimes forget that he’s also a very bad dude.

In his third comeback bout for Bellator in March 2017, Wren finally shook off the ring rust to remind people why everyone was once so high on him as a fighter. Going against Roman Pizzolato, Wren quickly achieved a clinch and, after softening up Pizzolato with a knee, back-stepped while still holding his opponent tight. Then Wren suddenly fell back and twisted, hurling the heavyweigh­t over him in a pictureper­fect lateral drop.

“Right when I threw him, I said to myself, ‘Oh, that felt good — I’ve been missing that,’” Wren recalled.

He proceeded to smash knees, elbows and punches into Pizzolato, and whenever his opponent would try to scramble out from under him, Wren was all over him, entwining his limbs around the man like a boa constricto­r wrapping around a tree branch. And when Pizzolato finally tried to stand, Wren hugged him tight from behind and arched all the way backward, rocketing Pizzolato over him and onto the back of his head in an exquisite belly-to-back suplex. Wren mounted his foe and, machine-like, began pistoning elbows into his face until he finally slipped into a head-and-arm choke to finish the fight.

It was a clear message that Wren is back and looking to make a serious run at the Bellator title. More important, every win gives him additional exposure to remind people of the causes he represents. After each fight, he sees a surge in donations to his Fight for the Forgotten foundation and to Water4. So he has no intention of quitting. He said that, if anything, he’s a much stronger mixed martial artist now. Whereas before he was fighting solely for himself, now he’s fighting for something bigger.

“The first time around in my career, it was all about me,” he said. “I would get my hand raised in the cage and think, ‘Is this it?’ ‘Is this all there is?’ It has to be about more than that.

“If I can fight for the next five years to help my Pygmy family for the next 50, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m a fighter anyway; it’s in my DNA. But you know, life is a fight.”

To find out how you can contribute to Justin Wren’s causes, visit water4.org/fightforth­eforgotten/.

resenting I found myself back in the sepulchral city to the sight of people hurrying through the streets filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesom­e dreams. beer, to dream their insignific­ant and silly — Heart of Darkness

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